Vikings CB Trae Waynes isn't ready to start
The Minnesota Vikings have played three preseason games now, and already we are seeing that not much has changed for their top pick, cornerback Trae Waynes, since our evaluation ahead of the 2015 draft.
Waynes was selected with the No. 11 overall pick, but he didn’t even rank among our top five prospects at the position based on our grading every snap of his final season at Michigan State. He clearly had speed to burn, as his 4.31 40-yard dash time reinforced, but his tape threw up other questions about his game, and PFF’s grading and coverage numbers strengthened those concerns.
Through Waynes’ first three preseason outings, we are seeing little evidence that Waynes has improved on those weak spots in his game.
In the Hall of Fame game against the Steelers, Waynes was undone on multiple occasions by receivers pulling double moves on him, causing him to panic and grab hold of his man; he drew three penalty flags in the game.
He also showed in that game a trace of his biggest strength – walling off a receiver on a deep route down the sideline. This is where Waynes excels. With his straight-line speed, he can run with any receiver in the NFL, and throughout his college season we saw him utterly unconcerned by deep speed.
And he was challenged deep often in college. Of his 59 targets, 19 of them (the most of any route) came on go patterns down the field. On those plays, Waynes allowed just five receptions and a quarterback rating of 39.9. If all Waynes had to do was defend the deep sideline against a straight go route, he would be worthy of his first-round status. Against other routes, however, he struggled significantly more.
On any of the bottom branches of the route tree (bubble screens, slants, quick outs), Waynes gave up a catch every time he was targeted. Literally. Opposing QBs had a 100 percent completion against him on everything short last year. His numbers are far worse on all other routes compared to his performance on go routes alone. Taking those go routes out of the data, he surrendered a catch on 62.5 percent of targets (the go routes mean his overall completion percentage was just 50.8 percent on the year — a far more respectable number). The passer rating he surrendered jumps from 39.9 defending only go routes, to 60.4 overall.
His numbers were already middle of the pack when it comes to the college landscape, but if you exclude those go routes they look pretty awful. That passer rating allowed would be the 122nd-best mark in the nation among corners. The completion percentage would be 309th. We are talking about the first cornerback drafted here.
Obviously, you can’t dismiss one aspect of his game, and I’m not trying to. Trae Waynes can cover straight go routes with the best of them, and that is not an easy skill. But the passing game is a diverse and nuanced beast in the NFL, and we are already seeing the signs that NFL offenses are going to test him far more extensively throughout the rest of the route tree than the NCAA did last year.
He has been exposed in each of his preseason games – surrendering a catch of at least 35 yards in two of the three. To put that into perspective, Chris Harris Jr. and Vontae Davis, our top two graded cornerbacks last year, didn’t allow a catch of more than 30 yards between them all season. Waynes simply looks like a player who struggles to change direction.
As notable as his 4.31-second 40 time was, a more important number for his future prospects may be his 4.39-second 20-yard shuttle time. Defensive backs almost always run a faster 20-yard shuttle than their 40-yard dash. Only six corners in recent seasons have posted times in the other direction, and it is not a list made up of successful NFL players.
This is a numerical red flag, but Minnesota very well might have felt as though it could coach him up in some of the weak areas of his game, building off of his rare straight-line speed. Perhaps the Vikings will be right, and Waynes will prove to be the best cornerback in the 2015 draft class, but as of now, it looks as though Waynes at least needs to spend his rookie season learning from the sidelines.